The DNC Debates Israel and Palestine


By Zeina Azzam

The 2016 Democratic Party Platform, which represents the culmination of a series of forums across different regions of the country and incorporates written and video testimony by thousands of people, was approved when the full Democratic Platform Committee met in Orlando on July 8th and 9th. The 51-page document includes sections on the economy, minority and civil rights, environment, education, health, the military, “values,” global threats, and international engagement. It has been called the “most progressive platform” yet. Dozens of committee members, most of whom were committed to either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, held negotiations to finalize the platform debated at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia.

The Middle East section comprises two paragraphs that distill hours of speeches and discussions and behind-the-scenes conversations. Most of the lines in these paragraphs are about Israel and Palestine. Bernie Sanders’s influence in reshaping the debate on this subject is unprecedented; during the presidential debate last April, his historic statements on Palestine were described as “taking a sledgehammer to the political status quo on Israel.” He was not afraid to characterize Israel’s force in its 2014 military offensive in Gaza as “disproportionate” to that of Hamas, and to call for the United States to end its one-sided support of Israel.

Some would say that the path to this particular moment in the understanding of U.S.-Israel relations was paved by many courageous and outspoken American leaders and thinkers who took risks in their professional careers to uncover the profound influence the Israel lobby has on the United States, especially in tilting U.S. lawmakers’ views toward unconditional support of Israel. Senator Paul Findley’s seminal book, They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby, Jimmy Carter’s remarkable publication by a U.S. president, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, and Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s comprehensive political science work, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy all questioned the domestic workings and basic assumptions of American policy toward Israel. These publications—and a growing number of other books, articles, op-ed pieces, conferences, interviews, lectures, blogs, and social media interventions, as well as an energetic progressive/activist movement that has grown in depth and breadth—have paved the way for an expanded view of U.S. relations with Israel and Palestine, and for courageous stands against mainstream policies. Phyllis Bennis describes this as an important shift in public and media discourse, calling it the “mainstreaming of criticism of Israel.”

Reasonable voices during the Democratic platform debate, such as those of Cornel West, Keith Ellison, and James Zogby (all nominated to the platform committee by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders), tried to expand the conversation beyond the traditional unquestioned backing of Israel’s policies regarding Palestinians. Although the resultant platform is somewhat more palatable than that of the Republican party, it still leaves much to be desired and falls short on many significant points. Most importantly, Zogby notes, he and others were unsuccessful in removing the phrases about Jerusalem as the “undivided capital of Israel” and the party’s stated opposition to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement. In fact, Zogby says, the fight in the platform committee ended up being about “knocking out” language opposing occupation and settlements, language for which the Sanders team was advocating. The Sanders team lost.

Despite this unfortunate setback, it is clear that there are changes in the way Palestine and Israel are being discussed in the media and in the progressive movement in the United States. Now that the traditional taboos of criticizing Israel have been brought to light and acknowledged nationally, our work is to continue the momentum toward increased awareness of the Palestinians’ plight. Bennis articulates that the final goals of such work are cutting U.S. military aid to Israel, ending the impunity that Washington grants Israeli officials at the United Nations and in international law, and supporting the BDS movement, whose aim is to press Tel Aviv to stop its violations of international law in the Occupied Territories and in Israel.

At the Democratic Platform Committee meetings, Cornel West forthrightly remarked, “Palestinians ought to be free,” telling Democratic Party members that they have been “in denial” on this issue for too long. One is hard-pressed to contest the right of any people to be free. It seems too often that basic rights of Palestinians are up for discussion, as if they are a people who are “less than” others. At present, as evidenced in the DNC and RNC discussions, even the use of the term “occupation” is being questioned by Israel’s apologists, flying in the face of historical facts.

It is indeed time for the American public and media to stop being in denial and to face the reality of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. As James Zogby notes, when the Democrats “reject terming Israeli control over Palestinians an occupation and refuse to call for an end to settlements, they give little hope to Palestinians that action will be taken to fulfill their aspirations.” He calls the Israel/Palestine parts of both parties’ platforms “a mix of bad policy and bad politics,” underlining the need for the next administration to assess the Israel-Palestine situation with equanimity and a view toward ensuring the human and national rights of both peoples, not just those of Israelis. The Democratic Party platform, despite its flaws, does call to provide the Palestinians “with independence, sovereignty, and dignity,” and this gives us small glimmers of optimism for the future. One can hope that if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, she will build on this fundamental idea and use it as a springboard for a more equitable and just policy toward Palestine.


Zeina Azzam is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. 

The views in this brief do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.